Death Comes for an Emperor: April 1, 1922

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


It was a cold day in late October 1921 when a small airplane from Switzerland landed in western Hungary. The airplane carried Karl, the emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, and his wife, the Empress Zita. Loyal troops of the Hungarian army greeted the royal couple and swore allegiance to them. After hearing an open-air Mass, King Karl, Queen Zita, their generals and troops boarded a train that would take them to Budapest, where Karl hoped to take up once again the government of Hungary.


Karl and Zita, with their son, Otto, at their coronation as king and queen of Hungary, Budapest, 1916

Karl knew this would be no easy task. This was his second journey to Hungary since the end of the war. In March 1921, he, with his loyal followers, had entered Budapest, where he met with Hungary’s regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy. But though he claimed to rule in the name of King Karl, Horthy was unwilling to give over the government to him. Karl, who had fallen sick, was forced to leave Hungary — but he promised he would return.


Thousands of Hungarians joyfully greeted the return of the king in October 1921. But though he had an army faithful to him, Karl faced tremendous difficulties. Since Horthy controlled the greater part of the army, he was very powerful. 


Karl von Habsburg-Lotharingen with an honor guard at a train station in Hungary, October 21, 1921.

The regent also had the support of the British government, which did not want to see a Habsburg return to power anywhere in Europe. Finally, many of Karl’s military leaders — men who had sworn allegiance to him — proved unfaithful. At last Horthy’s army overran the troops faithful to Karl; and he, to avoid further bloodshed, withdrew from Budapest.

Karl and Zita were detained at Tihany Abbey in western Hungary until the Allies decided what to do with them. At Tihany, Karl received a visit from Hungary’s primate archbishop, Cardinal Czernoch. Czernoch later wrote that at Tihany he had expected to find “a broken, fearful, suffering king,” but instead, he discovered that Karl needed no comfort. “I have done my duty, as I came here to do,” he told the cardinal. “As crowned king, I not only have a right, I also have a duty. I must uphold the right and the dignity of the crown.” The king said “Our Lord and Savior had led me to try to regain the throne.”


Tomb of Blessed Karl on Madeira

On October 30, Allied authorities removed Karl and Zita from Tihany to a port on the Danube River, where they were placed on a British ship. They did not know their destination, but they would soon learn that it was Madeira, a Portuguese island in the Atlantic, 535 miles off the coast of Portugal. This would be the place of exile for the royal couple and their children. But Karl’s sojourn on Madeira was short. In March, he caught a cold that soon turned to pneumonia. On April 1, 1922, Karl, the last reigning Habsburg emperor, died, while gazing on a crucifix Zita held for him in her hands. The emperor’s last words were, “Thy will be done. Yes, yes. As you will it. Jesus!”

Karl’s title of emperor passed to his eldest son, Otto — who, as a man, later dedicated himself to work for the good of the peoples over whom his family once had ruled. Yet, though Karl and Zita’s family lost the imperial power, a greater honor awaited them. On October 3, 2004, Pope John Paul II declared Karl “blessed” — the last step before being proclaimed a saint of the Catholic Church. The Church remembers Blessed Karl on October 21, the day he and Zita were married in 1911.


An Imperial Burial

The burial ritual for those belonging to the Austrian imperial family is a trenchant reminder to the rich and powerful that they are but human, and sinners. The clip below shows the burial in 2011 of Otto von Habsburg, the son of Emperor Karl and Empress Zita. Otto’s remains are brought to the crypt of the Habsburg imperial family in the Capuchin Church in Vienna. The grand chamberlain, thrice striking a cane on the church doors proclaims that “Otto von Österreich” (Otto of Austria) begs entrance. He then proceeds to read a long list of Otto’s imperial titles, only to be met with the response from the priest within:  “We do not know him.”



Once again the door is struck, and the priest asks, “Who is there?” But this time the chamberlain asks admission for “Doktor Otto von Habsburg” — telling of his personal accomplishments (including his stint as president of the International Paneuropean Union and a member of the European Parliament). Again, the priest says, “We do not know him.”

For the third and last time, the chamberlain strikes the door. The priest asks, “Who is there?” The chamberlain says, only, “Otto, a sinful, mortal man.”

The priest says, “So let him come within.”

Entombed in the crypt, Otto joined his mother, Zita, Emperor Franz Josef, Archduke Franz Ferdinand von Österreich-Este (whose assassination sparked the First World War), and their ancestors — all but Blessed Karl von Habsburg-Lothringen, whose body remains on the island of Madeira. To this day, the Austrian government will not allow Karl’s remains to rest in the tomb of his ancestors.

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